Earlier this year I happened to notice that an old American television show from the 1960s was airing every early morning.  Combat!  By summer’s end, I was tuning in regularly.  The shows focused on stories that revealed what people do when their humanity gets confronted by dire circumstances.  In one episode, for example, Sgt. Saunders pretends to be a traumatized German soldier, too traumatized to talk.  One sympathetic German takes him in hand.  In the end, when battle arrives, Saunders has a choice.  He shoots the German.  Maybe his bullet killed the man, maybe not.  But he angrily waves off another American who stoops to search the kind dead German.  Told that it must be done, Saunders says, “I’ll do it.”  Combat required him to participate in killing this warmhearted German soldier; duty summoned the will of Sgt. Saunders and he did the right thing.  But he refused to abandon his humanity; he rejected the idea of dehumanizing the slain German.  Instead, he embraced his humanity and the humanity of his enemy.

This was just a fictional story, a fantasy.  But it was a tale about being human, about doing things that must be done, about what we ought to preserve of our values in the course of honorably killing other people.  American families could gather in 1965 before millions of television sets and know that warfare, violence, and killing can be fraught with ambiguities, but when we fulfill our duty to kill, we also have a duty to nurture our humanity.  This storytelling transformed warfare, violence, and killing into socially moral things that honorable gentle people do when the right circumstances call for it.  War happens.  Sometimes we must kill.  When we kill, let us be humane and kind to ourselves.  This was the storytelling that I grew up with.

Long ago during the late 1990s I read some books about violence, killing, and warfare.  These are human behaviors that are not unique to humankind.  They are complex behaviors that emerge from complex circumstances, and we have complex ways of enacting those behaviors, and we have complex ways of understanding what they signify.  Now in 2012, watching a show that my family had watched when I was ten years old, I pictured how I grew up watching Combat! as a family event.  Did my parents gaze upon such stories with approval?  I guess they did.

But it is more interesting to ponder the fact that my parents consciously embraced a metanarrative that emphasized the need for violence and for killing.  Social justice needed slaughters like the ones I saw every week on Combat!  So each week my family gathered to watch at least one German patrol go down in a hail of bullets fired by grim-faced honorable American soldiers – soldiers who were doing the right thing, even the heroic thing.  The metanarrative was that I, too, would grow up to do my part.  When the time came, I would pick up my gun and I would mow down enemy patrols for the sake of doing the right thing in the world, as a matter of addressing the justified needs of my nation, as a matter of social justice.  In this storytelling, our humanity requires gunfire.  We need guns if we are honorable folk.  Let us arm ourselves honorably.  If we are worthy, like Sgt. Saunders, we will all carry machine-guns.

So when I read The Lord of the Rings in the summer of 1967, the metanarrative of wise folk needing swords and shields and needing to kill was very compatible with the metanarrative that I had absorbed as a child.  I saw grim-faced Rangers and Rohirrim singing as they slew.  I saw them perform honorable acts of mercy because when they slew they did so out of their humanity, not from viciousness.  Like Saunders, Aragorn would not hesitate to slay that enemy German soldier, but he would view his killing through a lens of compassion, like Saunders.  And when I read The Hobbit, even the wisest wizard of them all would raise his sword to slay the Great Goblin, and it had to be done because the wizard knew the metanarrative that I knew.  It had to be done and it would be done for honorable reasons.  That is what decent people do.

But… but was there no other story to embrace?  Do we really preserve our humanity with killing?  Or does killing do something else to us?

Well, now I think I know something that I didn’t know when I was ten years old.  Now I have another metanarrative.  It challenges both Combat! and The Lord of the Rings.  And it summons us to look at the storytelling that we value.  It urges us to ask ourselves questions that deserve answers.

In my new master narrative, I assume certain things.  I assume that most human cultural patterns exist not because we kill, but because we love; we wish for connection; we exchange ideas by choice; we non-violently compare our various interacting selves and we learn more about what it means to be human.  I assume that most cultural change happens peacefully without armies pulling triggers and without shield-maidens swinging swords.

And I assume that when we promote the story that tells us that we need to kill, this is almost always done as a means to enforce some kind of contract, a cultural pattern that involves the justification for social power, not the justice of preserving our humanity.  I assume that when we choose to kill in order to advance our social contract, we do not uplift our gentle loving selves.  Instead, when we kill, we then need to heal.  We need healing because killing does not articulate our gentle kindly humanity.  It is bitterly dehumanizing to kill.  And when we kill we must either seek to heal, or we must tell everyone that it had to be done, and we must convince ourselves that our killing signifies something noble about us.  We tell this story to one another and if we tell it often enough, through millions of television sets, and upon thousands of theater screens, and in the pages of countless books, people will come to believe this story, this metanarrative, even when they spend their lives enacting peaceful change without killing anyone.

Here in America, we tell one another that We The People need to kill; We The People are wise when we kill; We The People are heroic when we kill.  Sgt. Saunders will never suffer if he kills wisely; he is morose only when his own men get killed.  Returning home, he will someday be a hero, not a traumatized victim of the violent bloody killing he inflicted on the enemy.   This is a major metanarrative in our tales, our mythology.  We believe it.  But we are hypocritical about this because on the way to work each day, encountering enemies – business competitors, for example – we do not typically gun them down.  Most of us choose to enact non-violent interactive options.  Most of us prefer non-violence even when we advocate violence in our master narrative.

So when Gandalf the Grey slashes down the Great Goblin, and when he throws down his enemy, the Balrog, we affirm the story that we think everyone embraces.  The justice in killing.  And because this story is very powerful, perhaps we will ignore the fact that Gandalf thereafter raises no hand to slay anyone.  Gandalf the White is curiously non-violent.  True, he promotes the story of the need for violence, for weaponry, for killing.  He cannot see any other narrative than the one about the necessity for violence, for killing.  But he does not kill.  I find this very interesting.  I wonder what it signifies.  I can only guess that Tolkien wished for some other metanarrative than the one he knew.  Perhaps he felt a vague wish to see the metanarrative of pacifism – which he judged to be irrational – to somehow become rational.

Tolkien ignored much of human history when he wrote his books and passed along his storytelling about the need for violence.  He dismissed the history that shapes daily life for much of humankind.  The interactions that give us our daily bread usually do not involve killing.  They involve making connections that are non-violent.  But if Tolkien saw things otherwise, this is certainly understandable given the scale of the wars he witnessed in his lifetime.  War seemed everywhere.  It looked that way to everyone because everyone dismissed the meaningfulness of daily life as irrelevant to Great Events.  So if Tolkien and his peers dreamed up tales that involved killing as a humane act, as an act of honorable gentle folk, and if they deemed it wise to pass on to us such narratives, and if I sat down in front of my television set to watch such stories as a child, and if we still flock to movie theaters to absorb such tales, well, who among us would question this mythology?

4 thoughts on “Combat!”

  1. I always thought that asking someone to “make the ultimate sacrifice for their country” meant asking them to lay down their lives for their country, but maybe what it really means is asking them to kill, and thereby lay down their humanity for their country. What an awful thing to ask, and what a terrible sacrifice to have to make.

  2. Making the ultimate sacrifice for one’s country (in a ‘necessary’ war) is exactly similar to defending family and friends from someone attacking them. Such a sacrifice is horrible to have to do, but it is the right and honorable thing to do. Would it be dehumanizing? Standing by and letting the attacker kill your loved ones would be more horrible and probably dehumanizing. Sometimes we are confronted and forced into performing horrible actions by others. The horrible action we perform is not really because of us, but because of the other. Maybe the defender in this case is humanized. How many vets returning home, while mentally traumatized, are more understanding, caring, and loving of others? They seem to abhor violence more than the rest of us. Bottom line: the attacker is dehumanized and in effect gives his humanity to the defenders. Of course, I understand that this analogy is not so simple. The ‘attacker’ could be a decent fellow on the other side who is simply (like the defender) doing what his country asks him to do.
    Are you giving up your humanity when you go to war for your country? I think not. Maybe it is the opposite because you are doing it out of love for others.
    I think this conversation would be more interesting if it was between soldiers who have been in war.
    This is definitely not a simple topic – it requires much deep thought.

  3. Intriguing essay, Roger; interesting response, Charlie.

    Here’s my (surprise!) very short reply: I highly recommend the book, “What It Is Like to Go to War” by Karl Marlantes, a former Marine who was awarded the Navy Cross (highest service-specific medal for the Navy and Marines, surpassed only by the Medal of Honor) for his actions in Vietnam. Marlantes, who I had the privilege of interviewing, delves deeply into some of these issues.

    I also recommend his novel, 30 years in the making, “Matterhorn.” But do read the nonfiction work. I think it’s an incredibly valuable resource for those of us who have not been to war.


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